According to Australia Post’s Inside Australian Online Shopping 2019 Report, the two weeks prior to Christmas saw online purchases spike, making it the second largest week for online shopping in 2018; behind only to the week of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Any retailer with a website must be prepared, ensuring it delivers a positive online experience. Christmas is a frantic time of year for everyone and consumers don’t have time to spend looking for what they want, they expect to find it immediately—if they don’t, they’ll turn to a competitor.

In order to stand out among the rest, there are five key focus areas that retailers need to consider before the Christmas rush hits.

  1. Be ready for the high traffic

Review how many consumers visited your website during the same time last year and run a test. If your website didn’t cope with it last year, ask why? Ensure the issues have been fixed and the system won’t run into the same problem again.

In April this year, Coles experienced a website outage that while undoubtedly had major initial financial repercussions, the longer lasting consequences are not measurable. Shoppers don’t like to wait, especially when they’re coming to your site, money in hand, ready to buy—in the time they are made to wait, it’s likely they’re looking at your competitors to see if they’re able to service them quicker. By ensuring your website is capable of dealing with high traffic, you’re preparing to service your customers, and potentially some of your competitors.

  1. Understand performance year on year

After a busy period, retailers need to analyse statistics from the previous year and monitor their overall performance. This includes; click-through rate (CTR), add-to-cart (ATC) percentage, product returns, bounce rates, conversions, traffic, page load speeds and site downtime.

It’s best to begin this analysis in January when the holiday rush is wrapping up. That allows ample time to assess the numbers, look at your technology and decide if a new strategy or update is needed before the next big rush.

  1. Merchandise for the season

Christmas is widely celebrated, and consumers love a website that celebrates with them. Be part of the fun by updating your site pages with themed banners and content. If you’re going to offer a seasonal promotion, be sure to put it front and centre of your home page.

When merchandising for the season, it’s important to ensure your search algorithms are optimised based on the time of year and customer. For example, if a customer searches ‘decorations’ during November and December, it’s likely they want Christmas decorations. However, if they search for ‘decorations’ during March and April, they’re probably on the hunt for Easter decorations instead.

Using technology such as AI and machine learning, your search should provide the customer with what they’re looking for; even if they haven’t been specific or have made typos. Search is one of the first interactions customers make when visiting a retailer’s website—make it a good one.

  1. Connect inventory across online and in-store

There’s nothing worse than putting a number of items into your virtual basket, then getting to the online checkout only to be told your item is “no longer available”. Be sure to update your inventory in real time to avoid this issue and an awkward conversation with the customer. More than half (53%) of retailers report that they require up to 24 hours or more to make a new catalogue item available to be sold online. During peak demand times, this could leave customers with surprisingly empty carts at the last minute.

  1. Ensure customer service starts at the search bar

Online shoppers are smart and know the game well, but they’re often time poor. Ease of use is everything; customers don’t want to go flicking through multiple pages to find information. If what they’re looking for doesn’t appear on the first page of their search, then there is an issue with your search function and not their search terms—classic case of “the customer is always right”. For example, if a customer types ‘FAQ’ and it brings up results for ‘fan’; then your search has created a barrier between what they want and what your business is actually finding.

Accurate search results make customers more self-sufficient. If they can find what they’re after online, they’re less likely to be contacting your customer service team—a Christmas gift they’ll appreciate.

Although the holidays still represent a highly concentrated shopping period, the rise of online shopping ‘frenzies’ is keeping retailers on their toes all year round. The need for relevant search results, personalised recommendations, and real-time responsivity will be what helps retailers pull ahead of the pack in the long term.

Jag Dhillon is head of engineering at Lucidworks ANZ.